Maybe you saw the story in our summer issue about Jesuit-educated comedians. If so, perhaps you were one of the many readers who took it upon yourself to remind us that our shortlist of Jesuit-educated comedians failed to include the legendary Bob Newhart, alumnus of Chicago’s Saint Ignatius College Prep and Loyola University Chicago.
We’re sorry. We can explain.
We’ve already explained it to Bob, and he forgave us, so you might as well, too. Comedians with Jesuit ties are everywhere, folks, and we had to make some tough decisions about who to include. We cut Bob from the list thinking everybody around here knows about his alma maters. And by “we,” we mean “I.”
I admit it — it’s all my fault! I thought you’d rather see mentions of comedians you maybe didn’t know had Jesuit connections — like the young whippersnapper John Mulaney, a fellow Saint Ignatius alum. Did you know he was Jesuit-educated? Bob did, but even Bob was surprised to read about Amy Poehler and Colin Jost. So, you see?
“Saint Ignatius is known as the ‘comedian’s high school’ because every 53 years a stand-up comic comes out of there,” Bob said when I called him in late October. “I graduated in the class of ’47 and John was 2000.”
That’s why Bob has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, friends. He turned 91 this year, and his delivery is as dry and crisp as it was on his early albums and television shows. He also graciously laughed at my weak attempts at humor, the sign of a true Ignatian gentleman.
I called Bob to get his take on two things. First, I wanted to know what he thought about our idea that a Jesuit education is good for a comedy career, and I also wanted to know what he thought about the scandal — the omission of his name.
“When I first started out in comedy, I gave the Jesuits a lot of credit for what I call the somewhat ‘twisted’ view of life that I have,” he said. “The education I received, they called it like it is. They insisted that you deal with life the way it is. And that’s really the basis of comedy —truth. If it’s not true, people aren’t going to laugh, you know?”
Take Richard Prior and Mark Twain, he said. They offered the same brand of comedy — smart, observational humor that chronicled their times. That sounded like Bob’s own style of comedy to me, so I asked him how he landed on his approach. He said he’d been a part of a sea change in comedy during the late 1950s and early ’60s with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Lenny Bruce and Jonathan Winters, among others.
“For lack of a better word, it was intelligent comedy, and there was a presumption that people would know what you’re talking about,” he said. So, respect your audience’s intelligence and tell the truth? Sounds pretty Ignatian to me.
Now, the scandal. He said he was surprised by the volume of letters we received.
“My fans are very demonstrative,” he offered in his signature deadpan. I asked if he had a message for the folks who came to his defense and voiced their extreme disappointment in me for such an egregious oversight.
“Thank you,” he said, and then after a pause. “And they’re right, what a jerk.” He was kidding, of course. He’s Bob Newhart, the nicest guy in America. It was just a little joke, and remember, as Bob told us, the audience is smart, and the essence of comedy is truth.
Hey, wait a second, Bob!
Michael Austin is a freelance writer based in Chicago, a national James Beard Award finalist for magazine feature writing, and a former nationally syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune.